The door swings open even before I reach the second floor. In the doorway stands a petite lady who welcomes me with a sweet and warm smile : Nil Yalter. It’s our first face-to-face meeting, yet there is a certain chemistry that makes it feel like our gazes have crossed before — or, it might just be the comforting and familiar energy she radiates.
Her apartment is spacious, nestled in a quiet courtyard that belies its proximity to the bustling Champs-Élysées just a few meters away. Each room - including the bathroom! - overflows with brochures, catalogs, books, documents, and photographs. Nil is in the midst of a move, sorting through nearly 50 years of life. Béatrice, an artist friend assisting Nil, makes trips with a suitcase — downstairs filled and upstairs empty.
Image 1 - Nil Yalter and her assistant Eje busy with administrative tasks on the computer, December 16th 2023
Before my arrival, Nil and her assistant, the young Eje, also an artist, were busy with administrative tasks on the computer. After a quick tour of the apartment, I settle on the office sofa, letting them finish their work, and survey the surroundings : exhibition catalogs, an artwork by Ben, photos of Nil from the 70s, those of workers and immigrants, part of her body of work, and monographs of major artists who inspired her bring the space to life. “I'm in the dragon's den“ I thought to myself. Or should I say the “lion's den“; since Nil’s upcoming reception of the mythical and prestigious Venice. Biennale’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. An announcement that significantly filled her schedule, made her phone ring, and prompted numerous requests of journalists and collectors for interviews and studio visits. She speaks of her Golden Lion very humbly; such an award was unexpected for her. Yet, in the face of the magnitude of her work, the prize is more than well-deserved, almost obvious. I got an exclusive sneak peak of the envisioned scenography of her installation, set to be presented in the Central Pavilion during the Biennale. Her 1973 piece, La Yourte, is the central piece : grandiose
Image 2 - Nil's archives, December 16th 2023
At 85, Nil defies her age. Her mind is sharp, her memory intact, and her heart brimming with enthusiasm : three valuable key elements for the project. Despite her busy schedule since the prestigious news, she manages to make time for everyone who wants to talk to her while preserving her health. A crucial aspect of her well-being is to refrain all work before noon : a wish everyone respects with the utmost care.
Image 3 - Nil's archives, December 16th 2023
As we were perusing some of her digital archives, a journalist knocks on the door : an interview is scheduled for this afternoon for a French newspaper. Taking a seat on the sofa, I then became as quiet as a mouse, listening attentively to Nil’s exchanges with the journalist and noting everything I can. The discussion delved into the influences (Nil prefers the term “impressions“) that have shaped her career, shaping a constellation of encounters that have forged the great artist she is today. In two hours of active listening, I learned so much : about her arrival in Paris in 1965, her studio in Beaubourg (the same after 37 years!), her first encounter with constructivism, her friendship with Sarkis, her youth books, her parents' history, the profound ‘impressions“ of Joseph Beuys, contemporary music, Russian literature, and Foucauldian theories on her work, as well as her rich collaboration with Suzanne Pagé over the years. Listening to her was like traveling through time. I was trying to imagine Paris in the 70s, its vibrancy, and all the places her footsteps have trodden. I felt so small. Nil Yalter is herself a living archive, une véritable porteuse d’histoires. After warm thanks, I left her apartment with my head full of sparks.
Image 4 - Nil's living room archives, December 16th, 2023
A few days later, I once again met Nil in her studio at Beaubourg. Being nestled on the 5th floor, the view of Paris’ rooftops is dreamlike. The space is bathed in natural light, and its lofty dimensions highlight its 50 square meters. These walls have borne witness to over 37 years of creative endeavors. The carefully packed and labeled paintings, the boxes filled with negatives, and the catalogs scattered in her atelier will, however, not command too much of my attention for the first phase of the digitization. For now, my focus will be on the images and videos Nil keeps on her computer and external hard drives. Sorting, cataloging, and inventoring eighteen terabytes of digital archives await - j’ai du pain sur la planche!